Food & Drink:: My stomach gives thanks to Trieste

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The Independent Travel
There is such a thing as gratitude. The thirsty thank the oasis, the shipwrecked the passing boat, the wet a drying fire, and I thank Trieste. A case of one kalbschnitzel, one anonymous cream sauce too many; nice enough smoked trout with horseradish sauce, but so what? On a recent journey, I declined to eat any more in Budapest; I stopped briefly in Graz; gastronomically, I passed by Ljubljana.

Naturally enough, the valley mists began parting as I drove over the Carso, remembering that Lussu brilliantly described the decimation of the exhausted troops on those stony mountains; that Rilke's Elegies were written at a nearby castle in Duino; that Ettore Schmitz (better known as Italo Svevo) dealt in marine supplies to the Austrian navy based here; that Umberto Saba, expert in the old Jewish community, had described the journeys of a young rabbinical student up in these hills and into the higher flights of talmudic wisdom; that below us, at Fiume (now Opatija), Gabriele D'Annunzio had declared his republic; and that Trieste was liberated 50 years ago last Wednesday, and had to wait some time, knowing it was not to be Austro-Hungarian again, to see if it was going to go Balkan or Italian in its cuisine.

There, you see? The ingenious writer can bring himself around to food if he must - though I would claim that the above constellation of influences, plus the presence of a heavy cruiser and two frigates (grey, sleek and operatic) outside my window does much to explain the noted peculiarities of Istrian cuisine. Trieste is a fine harbour and was once a great port, the headquarters of Lloyd-Adriatica; it was part of Mitteleuropa and, like its sister-cities in the Veneto part of the Orient; its main dishes are fish dishes; it is Italian and Jewish and German and Slav in a gobbledegook sort of way - all this plays a part.

Add that this is a Bronze Age coast, a Roman coast, a Venetian coast, a much-attacked-by-Turks coast and a Patriarchal (Aquilea) coast, a now-populated, now-abandoned coast (pestilence, invasion, poverty) and you will understand something of the nature of gastronomic miscegenation. Easier still if I mention a few traditional dishes: milk- fed lamb tripe; wild asparagus fried with sausages; beans and wild herbs (mountain flowers in the main); boiled smoked pork tongue and fried fennel laid on oil-soaked bread; or the utterly delicious Istrian sopa in vin, for which you fill a wooden bowl with wine, soak some bread (which has to be very solid), hold a clove of garlic in your other hand and chomp alternatively on one and t'other.

Every port has its fish soup, but the Istrian version (or the Dalmatian), fish connoisseurs will note, has a few solidly different touches. Here is the recipe for Brodo di pesce alla dalmata.

Take about 1kg of mullet or other solid-fleshed fish, 250g of Italian round rice, 2tbs olive oil, 1 medium onion, sliced, a clove of garlic, 1/2 pint malmsey (preferably Istrian) gone sour (if this sounds exotic, just leave some marsala or any other fortified wine out in a tumbler for a day or two), a bayleaf, a single slice of green pepper and 1tbs of chopped parsley. Wilt the onion and soak it in the malmsey; add the fish slowly, together with the oil, bayleaf and green pepper. Cover with water and add coarse salt. After 5 minutes at the boil, add the rice until cooked. Serve in separate soup bowls with fish sprinkled with parsley.

If you can find a butcher who cares about such things, and if he kills his own lamb, you may be able to acquire the lamb tripes. These great delicacies (being young and supposedly still milk-fed, the tripe is not at all tough or too chewy) are cooked locally in a little oil, a touch of garlic and some parsley until they begin to golden; then add some puree of tomato (made by your good self, naturally, and of fresh tomatoes) and grated cheese. Here they use the sharper pecorino rather than parmesan.

Then, should you want a dish that is not only splendid but also splendidly cheap, you could try Uove sode di zia Mariele (from a recipe from Graziella Semacchi Gliubish, whose name I give to sharpen my point about mixed bloods).

The following amounts are for six: 4 hard-boiled eggs, sliced and put into a marinade consisting of 2 sweet onions sliced very fine, salt, pepper, 1/4 pint of vinegar, half that of oil and 1tbs of oregano or basil. Allow to marinate for 24 hours and serve over fresh-boiled rice.

Besides being a beautiful city with warm ways, excellent bookshops and antiquaries, mountains behind and the sea before, the sun sinking to the west out in the roads, Trieste is a wonderful eating town in which every ingredient (the vegetables which grow in the valleys under the mountains, the herbs that cling to these, the lush pastures in pockets and the fruitful sea) is entirely fresh.

I am grateful, post-Austro-Hungary, to have stopped by the wayside above Duino and to have eaten, this noon, my tagliatelle with salmon and my fresh grilled mullet, fished from a tank, shown to me flapping in a bucket and then grilled. In an hour, I plan to renew my gratitude: a half-dozen restaurants lie within a few yards. Nothing to choose between them, said my bookseller; you will be satisfied in any.